The gloomy, noir charm of Battlestar Galactica.

What you're watching.
Oct. 13 2006 6:24 PM

Apocalypse Noir

The gloomy charm of Battlestar Galactica.

Edward James Olmos (left) and Tory Foster in the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica. Click image to enlarged view.
Edward James Olmos and Rekha Sharma in the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), now entering its third season, is not science fiction—or "speculative fiction" or "SF," or whatever you're supposed to call it these days. Ignore the fact that the series is a remake of a late-'70s Star Wars knockoff. Forget that its action variously unfolds on starships and on a colonized planet called New Caprica. And never mind its stunning special effects, which outclass the endearingly schlocky stuff found elsewhere on its network. Sullen, complex, and eager to obsess over grand conspiracies and intimate betrayals alike, it is TV noir. Listen to Adm. William Adama (Edward James Olmos) gruffly rumble along as a weary soldier in a crooked universe. Check out the way that Hitchcock kisses lead seamlessly to knives in the gut. Just look at the Venetian blinds.

The palette is doggedly sober—a downbeat blend of gun-metal grays, military greens, matte blacks, dull whites, and deep blues. The shadows shift like paranoid fantasies, while the sunlight seems to brood. And when BSG's producers want to introduce a shock of brightness (and their story doesn't immediately call for a small apocalypse of digital explosions), their go-to girl is actress Tricia Helfer, who plays Number Six.

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Number Six is a Cylon, and Cylons are robots, mean ones bent on crushing what remains of the human race. Old models, called "toasters," resemble RoboCop as reinterpreted by H.R. Giger. Number Six, however, is of the new school, a skin-job. She's a dime-novel femme fatale as Joe Eszterhas might have written one—adultery-red skirts and a pop of platinum hair. It says here in the press materials that Number Six "can resurrect herself by downloading into a new version of her body." How many boys do you suppose have gone looking for that URL? Shouldn't they all get out more?

I had to rely on the PR kit to sort out some of this business because I am new to Battlestar Galactica, and Battlestar Galactica—like the movie version of The Big Sleep—is not especially eager to make any sense. That's not strictly a bad thing: Its comic-strip story (Humans vs. Robots, Round 15) is as elemental as they come, so the show's moments of ambiguity and its clever subplotting lend it some needed substance and shading. The tricky storytelling is part of the noir charm. Tonight's episode, for instance, begins with a man in a ski mask liberating Cally (Nicki Clyne) from her robot captors. She takes off sprinting through the woods, and—cut. "One hour earlier," reads the title card, and, happily disoriented, we slide out of the frame narrative and back in time.

The show also tries terribly hard to be heavy, piling on allusions to the war on terror and sluggish existential hoo-ha in a way that may get you wondering what's in the fridge. It's all very groovy that you can read Battlestar Galactica as a political parable, but the program doesn't seem to have a complete confidence in its goals—in its ability to work as both a piece of art engaged with life during wartime and as a slip of entertainment about robot hotties. Some of that noir gloom is the show's self-seriousness about its own Seriousness. There's no reason for Battlestar Galactica to push its tone to the point of dreariness; it already works perfectly as a space-age mood piece.

Correction, Oct. 13, 2006: Due to a production error, actress Rekha Sharma was originally and incorrectly identified in a caption as "Tory Foster," the name of the character she plays.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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